By Debra Wood, RN, contributor
July 26, 2012 - Befitting its history to spread a message of peace, unity and friendship, Debra A. Toney, PhD, RN, FAAN, traveled from Las Vegas to Oxford, England, to carry the Olympic Torch during a once-in-a-lifetime, international celebration of people’s accomplishments and achievements.
“It was fantastic,” said Toney, director of nursing at Nevada Health Centers in Las Vegas, a private, non-profit, federally qualified community health center. “The streets were lined with thousands [of people], shouting our names and raising flags. … It was a warm reception. To be embraced by the people who live there was almost overwhelming.”
Debra Toney, PhD, RN, FAAN, carries the Olympic torch near Oxford, England, on July 9, 2012. Photo courtesy of Coca-Cola.
Toney, a nurse for 30 years, felt honored to be one of 22 individuals selected by Coca-Cola, an Olympic sponsor, to carry the torch based on her service to the community and promotion of healthy living. She has spent her career advocating for improved access to health services, the elimination of health care disparities and healthy lifestyles for an improved quality of life. She envisions a time when all people have access to high-quality health care services and often speaks on leadership, women's health, health policy and practice issues at the national and local levels.
While she has served the nursing profession and community well, Toney said she does not know who among her peers nominated her or what they told the company.
“I always tell people, my experience could be anybody’s experience,” Toney said. “Somebody is always watching whether you are doing good for others or something else. You never know what might happen or who might recognize you for your acts.”
After being nominated while serving as president of the National Black Nurses Association, Toney received a call several months ago notifying her of her selection. In July, she packed her bags and headed across the pond. On Monday, July 9, 2012, Toney, dressed in an Olympic Torchbearer uniform, waited as the prior runner arrived and lit her torch, called “a kiss.”
“I took off running,” said Toney, torchbearer number 91. “Three hundred meters is longer than you think, and I had a little slope.”
After trotting the required 328 yards, slightly more than three football fields, Toney passed the flame to the next torchbearer.
“Boy, was I glad to see him,” Toney said. She did not find the torch heavy and was pleased she was able to bring it home with her. She plans to reach out to schools and community organizations to share her experience with children and people and let others in the community see and touch the decommissioned torch.
“It was lit for the relay and never to be lit again,” she said.
Toney stayed for a Coca-Cola-sponsored reception for the torchbearers. Among the torchbearers were teens who had launched organizations to feed the homeless, promote literacy or safely dispose of medicines. Others were former Olympic athletes and professionals, including physicians and a dietician.
“There was a lot of camaraderie,” she said. “Everyone got to talk about how they got there. We could hear each other’s stories, and that was an inspiration.”
She then traveled to London, observing the preparations for the games and meeting with the director of the Royal College of Nursing.
“There was a lot of buzz going on in London, but I had to come back,” she said. Toney plans to watch the Olympics on television, beginning with the opening ceremonies on July 27, when she’ll be able to see the final torchbearer enter Olympic Stadium and light the Olympic Flame.
Toney’s interest in nursing and caring for others dates back many years to her days as a candy striper. She has no regrets about choosing nursing as a career.
“If I had to do all over again, I’d do the same thing,” Toney said. “I really like what I do.”
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